|By Susan Emerson Nutter
WASHINGTON, D.C. — It is hard to imagine that until a few months ago, the National Gallery of Art did not have a major presentation of early American furniture and related decorative arts on permanent display. That all changed with the unveiling of Masterpieces of American Furniture from the Kaufman Collection, 1700-1830 at the National Gallery of Art on the ground floor of the West Building in October.
On display for all to see are nearly 100 examples of early American furniture and decorative arts from the collection of George M. (1932-2001) and Linda H. Kaufman (born 1938).
Considered one of the largest and most refined collections of early American furniture in private hands, the Kaufman Collection also includes American, Chinese and European porcelains and French floral watercolors (some 40 examples) by Pierre Joseph Redouté (1759-1840).
Assembled by the Kaufmans during the course of five decades and promised to the National Gallery of Art, the arrival of the Kaufman Collection makes it so the National Gallery’s fine holdings of European decorative arts now has equally important American works of art to balance out the Gallery’s permanent collections. Promised to the National Gallery of Art in October 2010, many of these objects were featured in 1986-1987 when the Gallery first exhibited American Furniture from the Kaufman Collection.
“The Gallery is extremely grateful to George and Linda Kaufman, who chose to give their collection to the nation so that the public can view the finest works of some of America’s greatest artisans here in the nation’s capital,” said Earl A. Powell, director, National Gallery of Art. “This unparalleled gift dramatically amplifies the great American achievements in painting and sculpture long represented at the Gallery, while also transforming our collection of decorative arts by augmenting its fine holdings of European decorative arts with equally important American examples.”
More than 200 pieces of American furniture and decorative arts comprise the Kaufman Collection gift with 100 of these items making up the Masterpieces of American Furniture from the Kaufman Collection, 1700–1830 installation. Paintings by American artists from the Gallery’s collection are also integrated into the presentation.
Hailing from Norfolk, Va., the Kaufmans began collecting early in their married life being influenced by Linda’s parents, Elise and Henry Clay Hofheimer II, who collected art and antiques. The Kaufmans’ first purchases included early pieces of furniture they acquired to decorate their first home; an apartment in Charlottesville. What set this young couple’s collecting endeavors apart from others at the time was their interest in the aesthetic, enduring quality and historic importance of fine American furniture.
In an effort to best understand and appreciate the objects of their desire, the Kaufmans made regular visits to Winterthur Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Yale University’s Garvan Collection to view and study the impressive collections housed at these venues.
And all this research paid off. Included in the Kaufmans’ collection are wonderful examples of the most creative and costly furniture available in 18th and early 19th century America. Even more impressive is the fact that the original owners as well as the makers of many of the objects are known.
Not only are these objects spectacular to see, the Kaufman collection continues to educate those who view what is on display.
The National Gallery of Art understands the importance of the Kaufman pieces and designed the installation to honor the collection. A monumental mahogany desk and bookcase (1765–1770), one of the most important examples of 18th-century Philadelphia furniture, greets visitors as they enter the first gallery. It is flanked by two side chairs from the highly coveted set of at least 12 that were commissioned in 1770–1771 for the Philadelphia townhouse of Gen. John Cadwalader (1742–1786) and his wife, Elizabeth Lloyd Cadwalader (1742–1776).
This first room also showcases some of the collection’s earliest pieces, including a rare William and Mary japanned dressing table (1700–1725) and a veneered high chest (1730–1760) with gilt shells and broken scroll pediment, both made in Boston.
The second room highlights the rococo, or Chippendale style, popular in America between about 1745 and 1780. Included are three tea tables exemplifying the distinctive regional artistry of Philadelphia, Rhode Island, and Williamsburg, Virginia, craftsmen. Also included here is a formidable block-front chest-on-chest made for Providence, Rhode Island, merchant John Brown (1736-1803); who, interestingly, is an ancestor of J. Carter Brown, director of the National Gallery of Art from 1969 to 1992.
This second room also features three delicate “pickle dishes” and a fruit basket from the earliest American porcelain manufactory, Bonnin and Morris, made in Philadelphia between 1771 and 1773.
The dramatic change in style that occurred soon after the American Revolution, now known as the Federal period, is highlighted in the third room. Housed here are two tambour desks and a demilune card table (circa 1794) made in Boston by English émigré craftsmen John and Thomas Seymour. These pieces contrast the Philadelphia desk and bookcase and a satinwood veneered card table signed and dated 1807 by Robert McGuffin (circa 1780-after 1863).
Other impressive pieces found in this room include a clothes press from Charleston, South Carolina (1785-1805), with rich mahogany veneers, as well as an eagle-inlaid clothes press from New York of similar date. A wonderful mahogany sideboard, inlaid with drapery swags, ovals, urns, and bellflowers, labeled by New York cabinetmakers William Mills and Simeon Deming (active 1793-1798), is displayed as is a pair of rare French porcelain vases with portraits of George Washington and John Adams shown along with portraits of Washington and Adams by Gilbert Stuart.
The last room of the installation honors the later classical style popularized by Napoleon Bonaparte which include Ancient Greek and Roman influences. Objects made between 1810 and 1830 often feature motifs like lions’ paw feet, eagles, dolphins, hippocampi (sea horses), and harps and lyres paired with specimen-marble tops imported from Italy. The main attraction of this room is a marble-top center table made by Philadelphia cabinetmaker Anthony Quervelle (1789–1856).
The installation is guest curated by Wendy Cooper, the Lois F. and Henry S. McNeil Senior Curator of Furniture, Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library.
The National Gallery of Art and its Sculpture Garden are free to the public. For information call (202) 737-4215 or visit the Gallery’s website at www.nga.gov.